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UT research study calls for new approach to chronic ‘petty’ offenses that damage the community’s sense of safety

Austin’s “revolving door” approach to public order offending is ineffective, according to a new study conducted by University of Texas at Austin criminologists. Nearly two thirds of Austin’s chronic ‘petty’ offenders are arrested for alcohol or substance abuse-related crimes such as public intoxication.

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AUSTIN, Texas — Austin’s “revolving door” approach to public order offending is ineffective, according to a new study conducted by University of Texas at Austin criminologists. Nearly two thirds of Austin’s chronic ‘petty’ offenders are arrested for alcohol or substance abuse-related crimes such as public intoxication.

Most offenders serve jail time rather than pay fines. Once released, many end up back in jail. Fully one-third of all arrests during a four-month period last year were committed by repeat offenders.

The report, “Broken Windows, Broken Lives,” focuses on what are known by the courts as “public order offenses,” a category that includes such misdemeanor crimes as public intoxication, vandalism, camping in public areas, disorderly conduct, assaultive behavior and petty theft.

Until recently, such “nuisance” crimes have drawn minimal attention from law enforcement and the judicial system, not only in Austin but in cities around the country. New evidence, however, suggests that such crimes, if unchecked, feed public anxiety about personal safety, which ultimately leads to the deterioration of neighborhoods and communities as fear causes people to retreat and avoid dangerous areas, such as the central business district, where one third of all such crimes in Austin occur.

The UT study found that one quarter of all offenders in Austin were homeless. Homeless offenders accounted for two out of three repeat offenders.

Alcohol or other intoxicating substances also were involved in two out of three arrests. These numbers indicate that most offenders, homeless or not, likely suffer from serious drug and alcohol abuse and addiction, according to the study.

“It is unreasonable to think that a homeless person or addict has the means to pay the fines or perform community service, sentences that are typically assessed by the misdemeanor court system. So offenders are jailed, let go and jailed again. It’s a “revolving door” that not only costs the taxpayers, but also fails to lower these insidious crimes that ultimately make victims of us all by their detrimental effects on our sense of community and quality of life,” said Dr. William R. Kelly, director of The Center for Criminology and Criminal Justice Research at UT Austin, which conducted the study.

The study also concluded that community service sentences, which are typically given to offenders who are unable to pay fines, are equally ineffective. Four out of five offenders sentenced to community service performed no service whatsoever. Instead, they substituted jail time credit for their sentence, just as the majority of those sentenced to pay fines.

The community sees little revenue from fines and few benefits from community service, since most offenders “pay” with jail credit. Instead, taxpayers “pay” for the sentences through the cost of jailing these offenders.

Titled “Broken Windows, Broken Lives: Addressing Public Order Offending in Austin,” the UT study urges Austin to adopt a two-pronged approach to public order offending by: repairing the harm to the community through modified use of community service and other restorative measures and addressing the addiction and mental illnesses that underlie a significant proportion of these public order crimes. Kelly said, “While we must be responsive to the harm these ‘quality of life’ crimes do to the community, the longer term solution requires a departure from business as usual. We must leverage community resources to directly address the problems of addiction, mental illness, and homelessness, otherwise we will simply continue to oil the ‘revolving door.'”